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An excellent comeback - 100%

Savi, October 3rd, 2008

Wow. What a surprise. After Inhuman Rampage was released, I was half expecting Dragonforce to spiral irreversibly down a vortex of techno-inspired drivel. Usually when a band goes down a dark path, they never recover. One word: Sepultura. But anyway, I shouldn’t even say it was a dark path. I still liked Rampage, but it was a little out of hand at times. Once they started trying to sound more insane than a hyena on crack, I figured they would just take it way too far on the next album, and it would end up sounding like pure nonsense, a collage of indistinguishable sound effects that did nothing but confuse the listener. This, of course, was just my worst fear. What actually happened was that Dragonforce released a more controlled album that didn’t sound as noisy and obnoxious as the previous effort. Ultra Beatdown actually contains genuine, well thought out SONGS, as opposed to what many Inhuman Rampage critics described as pointless wankery.

Instead of writing a song-by-song review, as one is generally inclined to do for an album as great as this, I’ll just talk about the album as a whole while mentioning certain parts that stand out. Let me start by saying that the tracks on Ultra Beatdown are so much more musical than the ones on Rampage. They just make more sense, and they’re more distinguishable. They flow more easily, and the instruments finally have some room to breathe. But don’t be fooled by my language. It’s still an intense thrill ride of a listen. While their music remains just as intense as it always has been, they somehow managed to keep it under control and create something highly melodic and noteworthy. There are parts on this album that don’t even sound like Dragonforce. For example, there is a slow waltz-type rhythm halfway through Reasons To Live that really changes things up without sounding forced. That whole song in general is probably the best track I could recommend to a Dragonforce skeptic. You might be surprised by what you hear in that song, especially during the very impressive Dream Theater-esque keyboard solo. The Last Journey Home is a bit unconventional for them as well. It’s probably the slowest Dragonforce song that isn’t a ballad. In the beginning it sounds more like the intro to a Rhapsody or Symphony X song. There are multiple parts here and there where the tempo and mood will change somewhat unpredictably to avoid any monotony. There is a mid-paced riff in the middle of Inside The Winter Storm that is reminiscent of the slow part in Soldiers Of The Wasteland. In my humble opinion it’s a mean ass riff, and it’s sure to cause some sore necks during their gigs.

There are still some wild guitar effects on this album, but I can assure you that the overall level of wankery has been greatly reduced from the last record. The guitar playing is a bit more raw and traditional, and a tad simpler. Dave Mackintosh is a demon behind the kit, as the drumming is nothing short of a flat out assault on your ears. I think the drums have a better sound here than on any other Dragonforce album. The vocals are beautifully done, yet aggressive when they need to be. I love the short high notes that ZP hits during the verses of The Fire Still Burns.

Once again, they decided to make an album with exactly eight songs, one of which is a ballad. It’s always fun to read the track listing before the album comes out and guess which one the ballad is going to be. Enter A Flame For Freedom. What a beautiful song. They write ballads better than just about anyone. Ultra Beatdown ends in dramatic fashion with one of the most triumphant sounding outros I’ve ever heard. What a way to finish the album. It leaves you with a good refreshing feeling. The album opener ends in a similar fashion as well. I think Ultra Beatdown may be the only album that could possibly compare to the dominance of Sonic Firestorm, which has been my all-time favorite album. I predicted that no band could ever outdo Dragonforce except Dragonforce. And with their latest effort, that may have happened. Now that I’m on the subject, I’d just like to say that if it wasn’t for the mediocre production quality on Valley of the Damned, it could have rivaled Firestorm as well. It sucks when excellent songwriting and musicianship are blemished by a sub-par production. It obviously didn’t ruin it though, but it definitely took it down a few points. I bet if they rerecorded it today, it would be as good as Firestorm and Beatdown. Inhuman Rampage is probably the worst of the bunch, but it still killed.

I bought the special edition of Ultra Beatdown, which includes two bonus tracks. One is called Strike Of The Ninja, which is basically a rerecorded song from their old joke band, Shadow Warriors. It used to be called Feel The Fire. The new version of this song sounds infinitely better of course, considering what type of equipment they had back in 2001-2002. I was hoping they’d rerecord all four Shadow Warriors songs and release them as an EP or something, but oh well. Maybe they could resurrect the Shadow Warriors and have them open for Dragonforce. They could dress up as ninjas and play the SW songs, then leave the stage, undress and come back out as Dragonforce for another set. That would be awesome. Well anyway, the other bonus track is called Scars of Yesterday, the music for which was written entirely by the two oddball members in the band, Vadim and Fred, which explains why it sounds so unusual. Needless to say, their musical taste is noticeably different from that of Sam and Herman. I’m glad it’s just a bonus track, because it’s obviously not the kind of stuff Dragonforce would normally play. It’s still a good track nonetheless, and I’m glad they included it on this version of the album.

My only qualm with this release is that there aren’t enough of those harmonic vocal parts where all the band members go balls out and do a triumphant chant, usually following a killer solo. I think they only did it twice on this album. I loved those! They could have thrown one or two more in there in my opinion. But honestly, that is my biggest problem with the album, and it’s a really minor one at best, so I’d still say this is one of the greatest records I’ve ever heard. There is so much raw emotion on this disc. Each song is very rich and has a lot to offer. It’s a flavorful blend of speedy, aggressive riffs, flashy solos, and powerful, anthemic choruses. I would suggest buying the special edition. You don’t want to miss out on the Shadow Warriors song. It’s a gem. It also comes with behind the scenes footage from the studio and whatnot, which is always a cool treat. It would have been nice to see some footage of them getting drunk with the fans, but oh well. If you want to see some of that, you’ll just have to do it in person next time they come to your town!

Simply put, Ultra Beatdown is a vastly entertaining joy ride from start to finish. It’s epic, triumphant, uplifting, and incredibly happy. It’s everything you’d expect from a Dragonforce album and then some. You’ll actually have fun listening to it. And if you’re still skeptical even after reading this, just loosen up and give it a shot. I think you might be surprised.